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Sunday, June 05, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: The Ramones
If proto-punk bands like the New York Dolls and Stooges represented the first stirrings of punk as a musical form and an attitude, the Ramones get credit for being the first undeniably punk group, no "proto-" needed.
That the Ramones were punk is obvious; they stripped down the music to where it could be stripped no more; four chords played fast, elementary melody, absurd lyrics. They flew in the face of the rock dinosaurs of the mid 70's era, who still roamed the earth, unaware of the meteorite hurtling towards them in the form of the punk revolution.
Unlike the bands that would appear shortly after in England, they weren't political, and their music wasn't violent. They didn't set out to destroy rock 'n' roll, as The Sex Pistols did. The Ramones were all about making rock fun again.
As such, their roots lay in the innocent charms of early 60's music; pre-Beatles Beach Boys, 50's greaser rock 'n' roll, even Chuck Berry. In a sense, it was a refutation of everything between the Beatles and Led Zeppelin; the Ramones came from an alternate universe where rock had never evolved or become progressive. In other words, when it was still innocent fun.
This was a radical concept at the time, a nearly theological reinterpretation of what rock was all about. Not that the Ramones necessarily knew what they were doing when they did it. Nor could they have known at the time what an influence they'd have not just on the future of rock, but on the cultural landscape of America. Love 'em or hate 'em, they left their mark.
They weren't alone of course; their peers in New York included the Patti Smith Group, Television, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell; intellectual bohemian-types who expressed the paradigm shift in rock a lot better than the Ramones could, had they been bothered to try. The Ramones never pretended to be artists, bohemians, or intellectuals; they were simple and unpretentious. This purity of vision and execution made them the leaders of the scene; New York punk wasn't best expressed by Patti Smith or the Talking Heads, regardless of the style or sophistication of their music. The entry "punk" in the dictionary is accompanied by the Ramones' mugs.
The band came together in Forest Hills, NY, a middle-class section of Queens. The original lineup was Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) on drums, guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin). Tommy Ramone (Tom Erdelyi) was the band's manager. Joey was 23 at the time, Johnny 26, Tommy and Dee Dee 22. They first performed as the Ramones on March 30, 1974 at the Performance Studio in New York.
Within a few weeks it became obvious that Joey wasn't cut out to be a drummer, and Tommy took over, moving Joey to frontman role. Joey's natural charisma was a draw, as was Johnny's raw guitar. The band was soon given residency at CBGB's nightclub on New York's seedy Bowery. There they held court, playing regularly, inspiring the patrons to start their own bands. They became a cult favorite fast; there were no primitives with their quick wit, sense of irony, and undeniable gift for hooks. A Ramones concert was a short, intense shot of adreneline; they rarely played more than twenty minutes, usually squeezing a dozen songs into the barrage.
Toward the end of 1975, the band landed a deal with Sire records; unless Patti Smith counts as "punk", the Ramones were the first New York punk band to land a label deal.
When The Ramones appeared in May of 1976, it was a record like none other. Recorded for $6000, at a time when the top acts were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on recordings, it reached straight for the nervous system with "Blitzkreig Bop" and didn't let go until the end. The longest song on the album, "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" clocked in at 2:38. Seven of the fourteen songs clocked at under two minutes. The titles were cartoonish: "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue", "Beat On The Brat", "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You". The album also included a cover of Chris Montez's "Let's Dance", which is perhaps the key cut on the album. The Ramones don't change this pre-Beatles standard, nor do they treat it with irony or bad taste. They simply play it fast and loud; a celebration of simplicity. While the next few Ramones albums would be better in their own ways, the debut remains the Ramones at their purest, which makes it indispensible. The hip critics dug it, the rock establishment didn't. The album peaked at #111, which represented a far better return on the investment than most top-10 albums did. It also sold well in England, where punk was just getting off the ground; the Ramones had influence on the entire generation of bands.
The band made their debut in England at a show on July 4, 1976 and would spend almost every free moment of the next twenty years on tour. The band spent most of the year on the road, before returning to record their follow-up, the aptly titled The Ramones Leave Home. The band's British tour paid dividends when the album reached #48 in the spring of 1977; in America, it was a tougher sell, peaking at #148. There's nothing wrong with the album, which followed the same formula as the first (14 songs played fast, including one cover). "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" became one of their enduring songs and was even a top-40 hit in England. That song reveals their Beach Boys influence in all its glory, while "Pinhead" is a singalong, and "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" one of their cartoon classics. Touring had perhaps left them with fewer strong songs than they had for their debut, but The Ramones Leave Home is still a fine listen.
1977 was the year of punk; it was a year that left an indelible mark on the subsequent history of rock. It was a year that saw countless bands form and breakup, a year when indie labels began to appear in mutant profusion, a year when rock was forever recontextualized. The Ramones in America and the Sex Pistols in England were looked to as the touchstones of the movement, but in truth, the bands had little to do with each other musically or politically. The Sex Pistols would ultimately crash and burn, but the Ramones were here, seemingly, to stay.
Rocket To Russia was their third album, released late in 1977. This represented a real step forward for the band; it's cleanly produced, the hooks are catchier, the songwriting is at a peak, and "Surfin' Bird" and "Do You Want To Dance?" are inspired cover choices. "Teenage Lobotomy" is the latest in the line of moronic anthems, "Rockaway Beach" is one of their best 60's throwbacks, and the album has a consistency not found on any of their other albums. While The Ramones remains the purest distillation of the group, Rocket To Russia is probably their best. The album peaked at #49 in America.
In early 1978, Tommy Ramone left the band but would stay on to produce their next LP. Marc Bell, of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, was recruited and re-christened Marky Ramone. Their fourth album, Road to Ruin, showed the band becoming restless on what appeared to be the brink of a big commercial breakthrough; they began to consciously alter the basic Ramones sound. For one thing, the songs were longer; for the first time ever, no songs were under two minutes; two were over three. While the essential format stays the same, a dozen songs including one cover ("Needles and Pins", the Searchers hit written by Sonny Bono), tempoes have been slowed, and hooks unnaturally emphasized. The best songs are great, and up to standard. "I Wanna Be Sedated" is an all-time keeper, as is the surprisingly mellow "Questioningly". But for the first time, some of the album sounded like filler; it garnered only lukewarm critical response. The album also failed to sell like its predecessor, peaking at #104.
Since so much legend centered around the Ramones' live shows, it was decided a live album might sell, and It's Alive was released in early 1979. The album didn't sell, but it is a magnificent document. Recorded live on New Year's Eve 1977/1978, the band charges through 28 songs from their first three albums, each one one of their best, finishing under 2 minutes 17 times. It captures the band at their early peak, at the peak of the original punk era, and stands as one of the best and most important live documents of the 1970's.
By 1979, however, punk was already in trouble. Several key bands had already imploded, several key figures on both sides of the Atlantic were dead, and the shock value had worn off. Realizing this, the Ramones stuggled to find a new direction after the weak reception for Road To Ruin. Playing on their image, low-budget film director Roger Corman made Rock 'n' Roll High School, an updating of the teen exploitation genre. For music, the band decided to ask reclusive producer Phil Spector to produce. While this choice might seem odd, it did make perfect sense; The Ramones had made no secret of their love of early 60's pop, which is where Spector made his name. By all reports, Spector and the band didn't take a shine to one another, and Spector pulled a gun on them a few times. The album itself isn't bad; a modest improvement over Road To Ruin. Spector's contribution is minimal; there are traces of it on "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?", as well as on the cover of the Ronettes' "Baby I Love You" (which was the band's only top-10 in England) but for the most part, he's relegated to sanding off rough edges. The pairing, and the film, helped push the album to #44, the Ramones' best ever showing. Spector would return to seclusion, and seldom be seen in a recording studio again.
The Spector experiment settled nothing however. While the band did gain some sales, they generally weren't rewarded with good reviews. So their attempts at a mainstram breakthrough represented one step forward and one step back. So, in 1981, the band decided to try again with another legendary 60's producer at the helm, Graham Gouldman, who had produced the Yardbirds, the Hollies, and Herman's Hermits, as well as performing in 10cc. Pleasant Dreams can only be looked upon as the first real failure of the band's career. Gouldman goes for clarity of sound, and steers them in an acid-rock, metallic direction. The result is an unbecoming album of half-baked swagger, and neutered riffs. "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and "We Want The Airwaves" are the only real keepers from the album, which made it to a soft #58 on the charts.
Chastened, the band spent 1982 focusing on live shows. In 1983, the band released Subterranean Jungle, produced by Ritchie Cordell and Glen Koltkin of Beserkley Records. Yet another stab at the commercial mainstream success the band felt they deserved but weren't getting, it takes on a lot of trappings of the new wave movement, even employing a synthesizer in places, and removing the band from punk almost completely. Decades later, it's a fun enough record. However at the time, their core audience let out a howl of protest, and the band's critical respect was reaching a lowpoint. As for success, the album charted at #63.
Marky Ramone left the band at this point, and was replaced by Richard Beau (ex-Velveteens), who became Richie Ramone. Realizing perhaps belatedly that their forays into commericial music wasn't netting them any extra sales, and was stripping them of respect, the band reconvened with Tommy Ramone again producing, and focused on their strengths; guitar driven punk, minus the frills. On this album, the band plays faster than ever, sounding like a hardcore band, but they manage to insert some melody and subversive wit into the project. "Too Tough To Die" is a statement of purpose, "Howling At The Moon (Sha-La-La)" (produced by Dave Stewart) a good early 60's tribute, and a few less-than-two-minute stompers return. The band saw some good reviews for this one. They also saw their sales vanish; the album peaked at #172.
It is also at this juncture that the Ramones had their last hurrah as a punk group, at least on record. From this point forward, the band would return to their quixotic quest to be accepted as mainstream artists, one that saw them try a number of approaches, with nothing really working. By this point also, the band's internal turmoil began to become public; Joey and Johnny couldn't stand each other, and were constantly at each others' throats. Animal Boy appeared in 1986, and contained the right-on Reagan dig "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg", but elsewhere producer Jean Beauvoir almost buries them in keyboards and sythesizer. "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" was cause for a fight between Joey, a New York liberal, and Johnny, a staunch conservative. The song was retitled "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down". It charted at #143.
Halfway To Sanity, released in 1987, bears the hallmarks of a band on the verge of imploding, and without any fresh ideas at all. Much of it is punched up guitar, like the big-sound Animal Boy, but there's something very perfunctory about the whole album. There isn't a standout cut on the album, and while some of the band's trashy roots are still in evidence, their hearts aren't in it anymore. It reached a by-then usual #172 on the charts, but did nothing to salvage their reputation. Richie Ramone left the group following this album, and Marky came back.
1988 was spent on several projects, among them a career retrospective, Ramones Mania, and the band also contributed a song, "Pet Semetery" to the Stephen King film of the same name. This song was included on the 1989 album, Brain Drain, which found the band at another all-time low. "Pet Semetery" was actually a radio hit, although most of the bands' core fans loathed it. The album delivers nothing; the band's last album for Sire was also their last with creative leader Dee Dee Ramone, who left to pursue an ill-advised career as a rapper (going by Dee Dee King). The band hired bassist Christopher John Ward, and renamed him C.J. Ramone.
No more recordings were forthcoming for awhile. Joey and Marky went to alcohol rehabilitation, sobering up after years of partying. A live recording Loco Live was released as a profit taker. The album is actually quite good; despite the poor quality of the Ramones' later studio recordings, they never stopped delivering onstage, right to the end. The recording was taken from a 1990 date, and although the song lineup reflects some of the less worthy tunes of the 80's, the band plays hard. C.J. does a particularly good job of filling Dee Dee's shoes.
The band's first post-Sire album was Mondo Bizarro, which was released in 1992. Produced by Ed Stasium, it does sound a lot better than their mid-late 1980's albums. Sobriety seems to have sharpened the band's sense of humor, and sense of hooks. Johnny is is in excellent form, getting in some of his most savage licks since Too Tough To Die. Titles like "Censorshit" (a dig at the PMRC) and "Cabbies On Crack" show where their heads were at. It's not a great album; it barely is a good one. But for a band so thoroughly written off, it is a mini-triumph. It only made it to #190 on the charts, though.
Acid Eaters, from December 1993, was intended a joke, and should be taken as such. The Ramones take on 12 songs from the 60's and give them their own specialized treatment. Not everything works, but "Somebody To Love", featuring guest Traci Lords, is a winner. Pete Townshend guests on a version of the Who's "Substitute". Also covered are The Seeds, Love, the Rolling Stones, the Amboy Dukes, the Troggs, and others. The album charted at #179, and didn't get much notice, but it is a fun record, with the Ramones well-suited for this material.
They weren't getting any younger though; with Joey and Johnny in their 40's, their patience in waiting for America to finally embrace them was running out. As the mid-90's approached, alternative rock seemed to represent a possible new niche for the Ramones. If bands like Green Day could sell millions, their reasoning went, then so could the Ramones. And if they didn't, the time had come to give up. They titled their 1995 album, Adios Amigos, and announced that they'd break up of the album didn't sell in substantial numbers. The album slipped off the charts in two weeks. As a swan song, it sounds all right, at least the band was leaving on their own terms.
The band launched a long farewell tour, which ran through all of 1995 and into 1996. They were due to play their final show in early 1996, but were offered a slot on the Lollapalooza tour, so they toured throughout the summer. In autumn 1996, the band split up. A final document of their tour, We're Outta Here, was released in 1997. While not a classic like It's Alive, or even Loco Live, it does prove that the band could put on a good show 20 years after their peak. Eddie Vedder, Lemmy, Chris Cornell, and Ben Shepard put in guest appearances, making this an "event" you might not play much. But at 32 tracks, most under 2 minutes, all the favorites are here, done right, making the disc a fitting farewell.
Joey Ramone was later diagnosed with lymphoma, and passed away April 15, 2001, at the age of 49. One year later, Dee Dee Ramone succumbed to a heroin overdose. Johnny Ramone fell victim to cancer, and died in 2004.
Weekly Artist Overview appears Sunday night/Monday AM.
Listen to The Ramones: Blitzkrieg Bop (1976)